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Legal Eagle: Warrantless search & seizure

by Laura L. Scarry

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Serious injury or imminent threat of serious injury creates an exception to the Fourth Amendment

This issue, I follow up my last column, which discussed the United States Supreme Court's decision in Georgia v. Randolph1. In the Randolph case, the Court addressed whether law enforcement officers entering a residence violate the Fourth Amendment when one occupant consents to a search but a co-occupant does not. Specifically, the Court held when police officers are at the door of a residence in the presence of a husband and wife, and the wife consents to a search of the residence but the husband unequivocally denies the police access, the officers are not permitted to conduct a search of the residence. Despite the Court's express statement to the contrary, the dissenting opinion expressed concern the majority opinion would limit law enforcement's ability to assist victims of domestic violence.

Recently, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the Randolph majority's opinion the police would be permitted to enter to assist victims of physical abuse in situations where they have probable cause to believe the victim is seriously injured or faces an imminent threat of abuse. Last May, the Court held in Brigham City, Utah, v. Stuart et al2 that police officers may enter a home without a warrant when they have an objectively reasonable basis for believing an occupant is seriously injured or imminently threatened with such injury.

The Facts
The case arose from a fairly innocuous call. On July 23, 2000, at approximately 0300 hrs, officers of the Brigham City (Utah) Police Department responded to a call concerning a loud party at a residence. When they arrived, they heard shouting from inside the house. They proceeded down the driveway to investigate and observed two juveniles drinking beer in the backyard.

When they entered the backyard, they saw an altercation in the kitchen through the rear screen door and window. Four adults attempted to restrain a juvenile, but the juvenile broke free and punched one of the adults in the face. The blow was so forceful the adult victim spat blood into a nearby sink. The other adults continued to try to restrain the juvenile by pressing him up against a refrigerator with such force the appliance began moving across the floor.

At this point, one of the officers opened the screen door and announced his presence. However, nobody noticed the officer amongst the melee. He entered the kitchen and again announced his office, and it was only then the occupants became aware of the police presence. The altercation ceased.

The officers arrested all four adults, charging them with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, disorderly conduct and intoxication. The case seemed pretty simple for the prosecutor — the police observed the altercation and the adults were intoxicated. However, the adults' attorney filed a motion to suppress all evidence obtained after the police entered the house, arguing the warrantless entry violated the Fourth Amendment. The trial court agreed and granted the motion. The Utah Court of Appeals affirmed.

The prosecutor appealed to the Utah Supreme Court, arguing the police officers' warrantless search did not violate the Fourth Amendment because 1) they were responding to a person in need of medical attention, and 2) exigent circumstances warranted entry into the home to prevent physical harm to the occupants inside. The Utah Supreme Court rejected both arguments, and the prosecution appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court Opinion
The United States Supreme Court took the case "in light of the differences among state courts and the Courts of Appeals concerning the appropriate Fourth Amendment standard governing warrantless entry by law enforcement in an emergency setting."3 In a unanimous opinion, Chief Justice Roberts wrote the police may enter a home without a warrant when they have an objectively reasonable basis for believing an occupant is seriously injured or imminently threatened with such injury.4

The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. Generally, police officers need a warrant to conduct a lawful search or seizure. However, there are exceptions to the warrant requirement, such as consent to search, the plain view doctrine, police inventories and exigent circumstances, to name a few.

Writing for the Court in Stuart, Roberts stated, "Warrants are generally required to search a person's home or his person unless 'the exigencies of the situation' make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that the warrantless search is objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment."According to the Court, an example of an exigent circumstance is the need to assist individuals who are seriously injured or threatened with such injury.

The attorney representing the adults argued the police were more interested in making arrests and not really interested in rendering medical attention or subduing the violence. The Court rejected this argument because the test for determining "reasonableness" under the Fourth Amendment does not take into account the officers' subjective motivations. As long as the circumstances viewed objectively justify the officers' actions, the Fourth Amendment is not violated.6

The Court also rejected the argument the offenders' conduct was not serious enough to justify the intrusion into the residence. Under these circumstances, the officers had an objectively reasonable basis to believe the victim might need medical attention and the violence in the residence was only beginning. In fact, the Court stated, "[n]othing in the Fourth Amendment required them to wait until another blow rendered someone 'unconscious' or 'semi-conscious' or worse before entering. The role of a police officer includes preventing violence and restoring order, not simply rendering first aid to casualties; an officer is not like a boxing (or hockey) referee, poised to stop a bout only if it becomes too one-sided."7

The Court also found the officers' manner of entry was reasonable. Specifically, the Court found officers did not violate the knock-and-announce rule. Here, after observing the punch, the officers knocked on the door and announced their presence. No one responded. The Court stated that once the announcement was made, the officers were allowed to enter. It would "serve no purpose to require [the police] to stand dumbly at the door awaiting a response while those within brawled on, oblivious to [the police] presence."8

In summary, if police officers responding to a call at a residence have an objectively reasonable basis for believing an occupant is seriously injured or imminently threatened with such injury, they may enter the residence even if they do not possess a warrant. Under these circumstances, law enforcement officers will not violate the Fourth Amendment.

Do not construe this column as legal advice. Officers should consult with an attorney in their jurisdiction for legal advice on any specific issue.


  1. 126 S.Ct. 1515 (2006).
  2. 126 S.Ct. 1943 (2006).
  3. Id. at 1947.
  4. Id. at 1946.
  5. Id. at 1947 (citing Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385,  393-94 (1978)).
  6. Id. at 1948.
  7. Id. at 1949.
  8. Id.

LAURA L. SCARRY is a partner in the law firm of DeAno and Scarry in Wheaton, Ill. She represents law enforcement officials against claims of civil rights violations in state and federal courts. Scarry was a police officer with the Lake Forest (Ill.) Police Department from 1986–1992.

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